The making of an A-10C pilot: 'The Final Exam'

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stacie N. Shafran
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
It was final exam time for 1st Lt. Dan Griffin and his 11 classmates, who are days away from graduating from the 358th Fighter Squadron's six-month long A-10C Pilot Initial Qualification Course.

The final exam is a capstone exercise known as a TAC-32. It encompassed everything the students needed to do to execute a combat mission and was taught through six classes.

The final product is an oral presentation, or go-to-war plan, that incorporates the skills and knowledge the students have gained over the past six months from flying, studying and learning from the seasoned pros in the squadron.

The class was split in half and each six-man team was led by an IP, an instructor pilot.

It was Capt. David Marshall, one of the squadron IPs, who was responsible for preparing Lieutenant Griffin, Capt. Aaron Bigler, Capt. Patrick Chapman, Capt. Josh Stallard, 1st Lt. Jason Attinger and 1st Lt. James Schmidt for their presentation Aug. 9.

Captain Marshall was assisted by Capt. Joel Bier, a recent Air Force Weapon's School graduate and the squadron's chief of weapons and tactics, and Senior Airman Erin McDonald, from the 355th Fighter Wing's intelligence shop.

Having watched a few of these while being stationed here, this always appears to be a nerve-wracking experience for the students.

Lieutenant Griffin and his crew confirmed this for me.

Between preparing to fly and flying three times the week leading up to the TAC-32, what little spare time they had left was devoted to research, studying and preparing for the presentation. While most of us were probably enjoying last weekend, these guys were hard at work inside the squadron's classified vault.

At the start of it all, they were presented with the rules of engagement for a fictitious conflict. Captain Bier created the scenario and helped the students meet specific lesson objectives. Airman McDonald provided intelligence updates about the conflict, and country briefs about the imaginary area of operation.

As I mentioned, I've seen a few TAC-32s. Several years ago, during my assignment at the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base, South Korea, I also watched our F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots go through something similar, a process called verification, which culminated their mission qualification training and certified they were ready to go to war at a moment's notice.

Each time I've attended one of these sessions, I've learned more about our Air Force mission, our pilots, our capabilities and what it takes to be the best of the best.

I've also noticed that this is certainly not a time to display any sort of a lack of confidence or to forget anything they've ever been taught.

During their TAC-32 presentation, Lieutenant Griffin and his team briefed their go-to-war plan in front of a board of senior wing officers.

In this case, the board was made up of Col. Edward A. Kostelnik Jr., the 355th Operations Group commander; Lt. Col. Scott Campbell, the squadron's commander; Lt. Col. Derek Emmons, the squadron's director of operations; and Capt. Matthew Vedder, the 355th Fighter Wing's weapons officer.

The also room was filled with the rest of the squadron: peers, instructor pilots, people who have been flying the A-10 for longer than some of the students have been alive.

At the end of the presentation, the board of officers had free reign to question the students about their plan.

Each one of the students displayed tremendous pride, confidence and team work as they tackled the slew of questions.

Of course nobody wanted to be "that guy" -- the one who didn't know the answer -- in front of his peers and the wing's leaders. Again, these pilots are the best of the best and well, we are the best Air Force in the world ... so we'd expect nothing less from them.

For everyone else in the room watching this unfold, it's not just a spectator sport. It's an opportunity learn from the students, who are presenting the most current information about the A-10C's upgraded avionics and weapons delivery capabilities.

At the end of the TAC-32, Colonel Kostelnik took a moment to congratulate the students and offer some guidance.

"You're all on the cutting edge ... as you get ready to head out into the combat Air Force. In the first 15 years of my career, we didn't see much new in the A-10 ... now we're seeing something new every six months," he said.

With that, he said the studying doesn't end here and told all 12 students to get to their next assignments, hit the books and keep learning so they can get the J-O-B done ... and so they are never the one to drop the ball.

Not only did the colonel speak from the heart, but his extensive resume speaks for itself. He's logged 2,723 hours in the A-10, with 207 hours accumulated in combat.

Colonel Kostelnik and Colonel Campbell, by the way, also are credited with killing between 200 and 300 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters during Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. They did this in a single mission.

For Lieutenant Griffin and his classmates, being surrounded by so many experienced A-10 pilots and hearing their war stories only makes them eager to leave the nest.

They all are focused on what's coming next: joining their operational units, becoming wingmen and preparing to go to war.

As Colonel Kostelnik hinted, the combat Air Force is ready for them to showcase their newly acquired skills and knowledge about the A-10C. As they finish their last few training sorties this week and celebrate with friends and family during graduation late next week, they're one step closer to all of this.

Most of us will only see the jets fly overhead, taxi down the runway or take off. This series, through stories, photographs and videos, offers a behind-the-scenes perspective into Lieutenant Griffin's life as he becomes one of the Air Force's next A-10C pilots. The series can be found on